Diwali: Hindus, Jains and Sikhs mark dazzling festival of lights

Girl poses with candle-lit bowls of oil

A girl with diya lamps lit for Diwali. Photo by Partha Sarathi Sahana, courtesy of Flickr

THURSDAY, OCTOBER 19: The ancient Hindu celebration of Diwali—a global festival of lights—launches from India today. In acknowledgment of and gratitude for the triumph of light over darkness, Diwali holds great significance for Hindus, Jains and Sikhs alike. As awareness of Indian culture spreads, major celebrations now are hosted around the world. (Note: Dates and spellings of Diwali vary by country and region.)

Preparations for Diwali begin weeks in advance: In a shopping bonanza comparable to the Western Christmas season, gold jewelry, fine clothing, sweet treats and household goods fly off racks in marketplaces across India, while at home, surfaces are scrubbed clean, women and children decorate entrances with Rangoli and men string strands of lights. Official celebrations begin two days before Diwali, and end two days after Diwali—spanning a total of five days. During this five-day period, the old year closes and a new year is rung in.

Did you know? Diwali is derived from the Sanskrit dipa (“light,” or “lamp”) and avali (“series,” “line” or “row”). For Diwali, rows of earthen lamps—filled with oil—are lit in homes and temples.

In the two days prior to Diwali, celebrants wrap up their shopping, bake sweets and bathe with fragrant oils. On Diwali, excitement builds as evening approaches. While donning new clothing, diyas (earthen lamps) are lit, prayers are offered to deities and many households welcome Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity, who is believed to roam the earth on Diwali night. To receive the blessings of Lakshmi on this night means a good year ahead. On Diwali evening, families gather for a feast of sweets and desserts and the sky is ablaze with fireworks. Tonight, the diyas will remain lit through the dark hours.

News from Delhi, 2017: In efforts toward a smoke- and noise-free Diwali, the sale of fireworks has been banned in Delhi and the National Capital Region (NCR) this year. Read the story in the Times of India.

The day following Diwali is Padwa, honoring the mutual love between husbands and wives. The next day, Bhai Duj (also spelled Bhai Dooj) celebrates the sister-brother bond. On Bhai Duj, women and girls gather to perform puja and prayers for the well-being of their brothers, and siblings engage in gift-giving and the sharing of a meal.

DIWALI, MAHAVIRA & BANDI CHHOR DIVAS

For Jains: On the night of Diwali, Jains celebrate light for yet another reason: to mark the attainment of moksha, or nirvana, by Mahavira. As the final Jain Tirthankar of this era, Mahavira’s attainment is celebrated with much fervor. It’s believed that many gods were present on the night when Mahavira reached moksha, and that their presence illuminated the darkness. Today, many Jains fast, meditate on Mahavira and chant this Tirthankar’s words during Diwali.

For Sikhs: Sikhs mark the Bandi Chhor Divas on Diwali, when Guru Har Gobind Ji freed himself and 52 Hindu kings from Fort Gwalior and arrived at the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Today, Bandi Chhor Divas is commemorated with the lighting of the Golden Temple, fireworks and more. For some Sikhs, Diwali also is a time to remember the martyrdom of Sikh scholar Bhai Mani Singh in 1737, and the eventual establishment of the Khalsa rule.

EXTRAS

Find a kid-friendly approach to teaching about Diwali from National Geographic.

Access recipes, poems, wallpapers and more at DiwaliFestival.org.

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Categories: Hindu

Navaratri: Hindus celebrate nine nights of femininity and goddess Durga

Dancers in colorful dresses in front of stone temple

Garba dancers for Navaratri. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 21: An ancient festival that emphasizes the motherhood of the divine and femininity, Hindus begin the nine-night religious festival known as Sharad Navaratri (English spellings vary; the name often appears without the middle “a”). Each night during Navaratri, Hindus worship a different form or characteristic of the Mother Goddess Durga, who is regarded as being manifested in cosmic energy and power. In general, Sharad Navaratri is the celebration of good over evil, though many aspects of this tradition vary by region in India and around the world.

Did you know? Navaratri means, literally, “nine nights” (“nava” and “ratri”).

Navaratri in its basic form takes place a number of times during the seasons of each year, but it’s Sharad Navaratri—this festival, at the beginning of autumn—that takes precedence over any other. Sharad Navaratri culminates on a final day known as Dussehra.

Legends related to this observance differ: Some indicate that Shiva gave permission to Durga to visit her mother for nine days, while others describe Durga’s victory following a nine-day battle with the demon Mahishasura. Life-size clay figures depicting this battle are commonly seen in temples during Navaratri. But there is a universal theme to this tradition, too: All Hindus aim for purity, avoiding meat, grains and alcohol—and usually installing a household pot that is kept lit for nine days. Some devotees fast, and others consume only milk and fruit for nine days.

ORCHESTRAS, DANCING AND SHRINES

Navaratri brings out orchestras and community-wide singing in India: nighttime dances in the streets combine with bountiful feasts and shrines are elaborately decorated. In Saraswat Brahmin temples, statue figures are adorned with flowers, sandalwood paste and turmeric.

In some regions of India, it’s believed that one should try to envision the divinity in the tools used for daily life—whether books, computers or larger instruments—and decorate them with flowers and other adornments, in hopes of both humbling themselves and bringing auspiciousness upon the items that aid them in livelihood.

NEWS: NO ADVERTISEMENTS WITH IDOLS, LEADER SAYS ‘HINDUS ONLY’

This year, advertisement boards will be banned on vehicles that accompany the Navaratri idol procession, reports The Hindu. (Read more here.) During the holiday period, temples will be declared festival areas and processions will take place in various regions.

News publications continue to report that the colorful, vibrant celebrations that are the trademark of many Hindu festivals are attracting more and more tourists; in response, some Hindus are beginning to request that certain events are open only to practicing Hindus. (One India reported.) This year, reports are following a Hindu leader who is proposing that the Aadhaar card be mandatory at Garba events during Navaratri.

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Categories: Hindu

Krishna Janmashtami: Pyramids, chanting, fasting commence in India

Hindus in colorful celebration

A Krishna Janmashtami program. Courtesy of Vimeo. (Click on the photo to view a video of the program.)

MONDAY, AUGUST 14 and TUESDAY, AUGUST 15 (date varies by country): Millions of Hindus worldwide revel in the spirit of Lord Krishna, fasting, chanting, indulging in sweets and celebrating for the grand festival of Krishna Janmashtami. An observance that lasts eight days in some regions, Krishna Janmashtami honors the birth of the Hindu deity Krishna, the eighth avatar of Vishnu. To devotees, Krishna is the epitome of countless characteristics: according to ancient texts, he is a mischievous and fun-loving child, a romantic lover and an empathetic friend. Worshippers relate to one or more aspects of Krishna’s personality, and legend has it that the deity reciprocates devotions in ways unique for each devotee.

Fast fact: Scriptural details and astrological calculations place Krishna’s birth on July 18, 3228 BCE.

On Krishna Janmashtami, events begin before sunrise and last through midnight. Public and private prayer, both in centuries-old temples and in private homes, can include chanting and singing or a more private praise. Feasts of many dishes are prepared, and dances and dramas depicting the life and ways of Krishna are watched with fanfare. Some devotees dress or decorate statues of Krishna, while others string garlands across temples. Many Hindus fast until midnight—the official birth time of Krishna. At midnight, those at the temple watch a priest pull apart curtains to reveal a fully dressed figure of Krishna.

DAHI HANDI, BUTTERMILK & KRISHNA

Human pyramid at nighttime

A Dahi Handi human pyramid. Photo by Ramnath Bhat, courtesy of Flickr

Across India, Krishna’s janmashtami is commemorated with regional variations. In Mumbai, Pune and in other regions, boys form human pyramids in hopes of having the highest boy break an earthen pot (called a handi) filled with buttermilk, which is tied to a string strung high above the streets. If the pot is broken, buttermilk spills over the group and the boys win prize money. Various groups compete in Dahi Handi, in impersonation of a favorite pasttime of the child Krishna: stealing butter. Today, political figures, wealthy individuals and even Bollywood actors contribute to prize money for the Dahi Handi.

In some regions of India, younger boys—typically the youngest male in a family—is dressed up like Lord Krishna on Janmashtami. Hindus across Nepal, the U.S., Caribbean and more revel in festivities for Krishna Janmashtami, offering fruit, flowers and coins to the deity.

NEWS: DAHI HANDI PYRAMID RESTRICTIONS IMPACT 2017 FESTIVITIES

The famed Dahi Handi pyramids, formed by young people in efforts to break a hung pot and earn prize money, now face restrictions as the Bombay High Court banned entrants under the age of 18 and limiting the height of the human pyramids to 20 feet last year.

Now named a “dangerous performance,” the long-standing tradition of Krishna Janmashtami causes injuries that are often fatal, as pyramids may reach up to nine stories tall with no means of assistance in the occurrence of falls. (The Hindu reported; The Indian Express has updated on the story, this year.) Still, officials voice uncertainty in verifying the age of Dahi Handi participants, as well as in the heights of the pyramids amid the excitement of the crowded festivities.

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Categories: Faiths of IndiaHindu

Raksha Bandhan: Brother-sister bonds honored across India

Women at marketplace looking at bracelets

Women shop for Raksha Bandhan. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

MONDAY, AUGUST 7: Across India and in Hindu communities worldwide, the sacred bonds between brothers and sisters are honored on Raksha Bandhan. Over many centuries, the rakhi (from Sanskrit, “the tie or knot of affection”) has evolved from simple, handspun threads into bangles adorned in jewels, crystals, cartoon characters and even political figures.

The simple gift expresses renewed love between siblings and sometimes between others who share a bond of brotherhood. Typically, today, women present a rakhi to men and, in return, the men promise to protect the women who offer them a bracelet. Although usually associated with Hinduism, Raksha Banhan has now reached a wider cultural status—often celebrated by Jains, Sikhs and even some Muslims across India, Mauritus, parts of Nepal and Pakistan.

What is a rakhi? A rakhi is a type of bracelet—intricately designed or simple, expensive or handmade—tied onto a brother’s wrist by his sister. The fragile thread of rakhi represents the subtle yet impermeable strength that exists between siblings. The sacred relationship between brother and sister is considered unparalleled, as even when a woman marries, her brother’s duties as protector do not cease. On a broader scale, Raksha Bandhan is a time for harmonious existence and a bond between leaders—teachers, political figures, civil authorities—and those they serve.

RAKSHA BANDHAN: COLORS AND RITUALS

Rakhi Ganesha

A rakhi featuring Ganesha. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Weeks before the culmination of Raksha Bandhan, Indian shops offer a bright palette of threads for women making their own rakhi; shops also are stocked with colorful premade rakhi. Men also shop market stands, searching for a token of love for their sisterly Raksha Bandhan companion.

The morning of the festival, brothers and sisters greet one another in, if possible, the presence of other family members. The sister ties a rakhi on her brother’s wrist, reciting prayers for his well-being and applying a colorful tilak mark to his forehead. The brother promises, in return, to protect his sister under all circumstances—even if she is grown and married—and the two indulge in sweet foods. The brother presents the sister with a gift, and everyone present rejoices in the gladness of family.

Interested in making your own rakhi? Find 15 kid- and adult-friendly ideas at the blog Artsy Craftsy Mom, which features simple to complex DIY rakhi instructions.

IN THE NEWS: 2017 AUSPICIOUS TIMES & MUSLIM-HINDU BONDS

The most auspicious times to observe Raksha Bandhan are discussed at India.com, and also in the news, Indian Prime Minister Suraksha Bima Yojana has announced the gift of insurance coverage for 11,000 girls and women in need for Raksha Bandhan. The prime minister will also build 100 toilets in houses for women who cannot afford them, according to Times of India. A rahki campaign will also be run throughout August across India, for which Muslim girls will tie rakhi onto Hindu boys and Hindu girls will tie rakhi onto Mulsim boys. The boys will promise protection to the gift-bearers in this effort of brotherhood between religions and castes. (Read more in The Hindu.)

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Categories: Faiths of IndiaHinduInterfaith

Hindu, Jain: Observe ‘never diminishing’ Akshaya Tritiya

Sugarcane juice

Cool cups of sugarcane juice ready for the holiday.

FRIDAY, APRIL 28: It’s an auspicious day for Hindus and Jains today: It’s “the never diminishing” Akshaya Tritiya. The most common ways to celebrate? Buy a bit of gold or make an investment to celebrate in the Hindu manner. Or, sip a cool cup of sugarcane juice to appreciate Jain traditions.

As its Sanskrit translation indicates, Akshaya Tritiya is a day traditionally believed to bring success to anyone who begins a new venture, performs a work of service or makes an investment. Although both Hindus and Jains observe Akshaya Tritiya, their reasons for marking the holy day are different. (Wikipedia has details.)

For Hindus, a variety of legends surround this sacred day. Many turn to the god Vishnu on Akshaya Tritiya, as it’s believed Parashurama—the sixth Avatar, or incarnation, of Vishnu—was born. Another Hindu tradition holds that the river Ganges descended to Earth from heaven today, and so a dip in the most sacred Indian river is common. Still others believe Akshaya Tritiya is the day Veda Vyasa began declaring the epic Mahabharata to Lord Ganesha.

How seriously is this tradition held in Indian communities? Answer: Pretty seriously. The Times of India recently reported that the real-estate market in the Mumbai area is expecting a boom around the holiday. Meanwhile, Business Standard reports that sales of gold jewelry will rise.

Jains call to mind the first Tirthankara, or enlightened spiritual leader, named Rishabhadeva. Jains believe the first Tirthankara gave up his kingship in Ayodhya to become a Jain monk, but that as he traveled the countryside, he became hungry because the people offered their former king gold, jewels and expensive garments instead of food. Finally, Rishabhadeva’s grandson understood his need and gave him sugar cane juice. On Akshaya Tritiya, it’s common for Jains to break a fast with sugar cane juice, too.

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Categories: Faiths of India

Maha Shivaratri: Hindus honor marriage, linga of Lord Shiva

Young man and older man walking and holding hands while holding colorful Hindu decorations

Hindu devotees carry decorations on an annual pilgrimage to a Maha Shivaratri festival. Photo by ILRI, courtesy of Flickr

FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 24: A day of fasting and worship is followed by a nighttime vigil for Lord Shiva, on the Hindu holiday of Maha Shivaratri. Lord Shiva is associated with several legends and renowned as the model of an ideal husband. On Maha Shivaratri, many Hindus believe that Lord Shiva performed the Tandava—the cosmic dance of creation, preservation and destruction.

After a full day of visiting temples, performing ritual baths for figures of Lord Shiva and fasting, Hindus begin a vigil that lasts the entire night.

LORD SHIVA: MARRIAGE AND LINGA

Many stories are shared as this holiday is celebrated by Hindus in India, Nepal, Trinidad, Tobago and other parts of the world. According to one legend, Lord Shiva and his consort, Parvati, were married on this day. As the marriage of Lord Shiva and Parvatai is regarded as ideal, married women pray for the well being of their husbands and single women pray that they will find a husband like Shiva.

In another traditional story, Lord Shiva manifested in the form of a Linga on Maha Shivaratri, and thus the day is regarded as extremely auspicious.

In the news: Rhode Island’s first Hindu temple—acquired in building last October—will be home to Maha Shivaratri celebrations this year. Read the story here.

RITUALS AND CUSTOMS

After waking early for a ritual bath, Hindus begin the day by visiting the temple. At the temple, Hindus pray, make offerings and bathe figures of Shiva in milk, honey or water. Many devotees either fast or partake in only milk and fruit throughout the day. As evening falls, the worship continues, and hymns and devotional songs are sung to Shiva throughout the night. It’s believed that sincere worship of Lord Shiva on Maha Shivaratri—Lord Shiva’s favorite day—will bring absolution of sins, neutrality of the mind and assistance in liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth.

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Categories: Hindu

Diwali: Hindus, Sikhs and Jains light up the nights, rejoice in truth and goodness

Variety of colors in design on floor with candle in the middle

Photo by Nimish Gogri, courtesy of Flickr

SUNDAY, OCTOBER 30: The worldwide festival of lights launches from India today, in the ancient Hindu celebration of Diwali. In recognition of the triumph of light over darkness, Diwali bears great significance for Hindus, Jains and Sikhs alike. As awareness of Indian culture spreads, major celebrations now are hosted around the world. And, please note: Dates and spellings of Diwali vary by country and region.

Preparations for Diwali begin weeks in advance, so a flurry of pre-Diwali activity can be seen in most cities of India. In a shopping extravaganza comparable to the Western Christmas season, gold jewelry, fine clothing, sweet treats and household goods fly off racks in marketplaces across India. At home, surfaces are scrubbed clean, women and children decorate entrances with Rangoli and men string strands of lights. Official celebrations begin two days before Diwali, and end two days after Diwali—spanning a total of five days. During this five-day period, the old year closes and a new year is rung in.

Hands with tatooed henna holding lit diya lamp in semi-darkness

Hands holding a diya lamp for Diwali. Photo by Shrinivasa Sharma, courtesy of Flickr

Did you know? Diwali is derived from the Sanskrit fusion of dipa (“light,” or “lamp”) and avali (“series,” “line,” or “row”). For Diwali, rows of lamps are lit in homes and temples.

On Diwali, excitement builds as evening approaches. While donning new clothing, diyas (earthen lamps, filled with oil) are lit, prayers are offered to deities and many households welcome Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity who is believed to roam the earth on Diwali night. The night’s extravaganza is a sky ablaze with fireworks. Families gather for a feast of sweets and desserts as the diyas remain lit through the dark hours.

The day following Diwali is Padwa, honoring the mutual love between husbands and wives. The next day, Bhai Duj, celebrates the sister-brother bond. On Bhai Duj, women and girls gather to perform puja and prayers for the well-being of their brothers, and siblings engage in gift-giving and the sharing of a meal.

ATMAN, HIGHER KNOWLEDGE

Several Hindu schools of philosophy teach the existence of something beyond the physical body and mind: something pure and infinite, known as atman. Diwali celebrates the victory of good over evil, in the deeper meaning of higher knowledge dissipating ignorance and hope prevailing over despair. When truth is realized, Hindus believe that one can see past ignorance and into the oneness of all things.

DIWALI AMONG JAINS AND SIKHS

On the night of Diwali, Jains celebrate light for yet another reason: to mark the attainment of moksha, or nirvana, by Mahavira. As the final Jain Tirthankar of this era, Mahavira’s attainment is celebrated with much fervor. It’s believed that many gods were present on the night when Mahavira reached moksha, and that their presence illuminated the darkness.

Sikhs mark the Bandi Chhor Divas on Diwali, when Guru Har Gobind Ji freed himself and the Hindu kings from Fort Gwalior and arrived at the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Today, Bandi Chhor Divas is commemorated with the lighting of the Golden Temple, fireworks and more.

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Categories: Faiths of IndiaHindu